Within the genre of Middle Eastern Dance, Rania is considered a Master Teacher, and has won many awards including 2 Bellydancer of the Universe Championship titles. One of the original Bellydance Superstars, Rania travels extensively throughout the world teaching Middle Eastern Dance Technique, Ethnic Dances and Choreography.
Rania has starred in over 20 Dance Instructional, Performance and Fitness DVDs, which are sold all over the world. Rania is author of the book, "Bellydancing for Fitness". Her "Pure Sweat" DVD was named in the Top Ten Fitness DVDs of 2003 by the Chicago Sun Tribune, The St. Louis Post, The Miami Herald, The Dallas Observer, and Essence Magazine.
Rania has taught all over the North America, South America, Asia, Europe and Africa.
I catch up with here as she answers some of my questions ...
Many students on our site might have never heard of Rania, allow me to introduce you to our followers in your own words. Who is Rania?
I saw my first Bellydancer at a Greek Restaurant when I was 8 years old, and was mesmerized. My parents didn’t let me study dance or music, so I studied gymnastics and art, until I was in JR High School, when I snuck out and took bellydance lessons.
I believe everyone should study science, language, music, dance, fitness, spirituality, philosophy, and art. All of it, all at once. I think if we are well rounded and keep learning, we begin to approach our potential.
I met a lady who began bellydance classes when she was 50. I saw her again when she was in her 60’s, dancing up a storm and even doing Turkish drops. She even set up a tour of retirement homes to inspire senior citizens to take up a new hobby. She is one of my heroes; I want to be like her.
I studied different forms of art and dance throughout college. Graduated with a BA in Fine Arts and a Masters of Business Administration (Marketing concentration).
I love dance so much that I don’t want to ever depend on it for money. I work full time in management, and dance evenings and weekends. I dance when I feel like it, for whom I want, not for money or because I need to. I like the idea that I can refuse a job if the clients are rude or condescending. This way it’s kept kind of pure, like a constant source of joy for me.
I like to think of myself as a perpetual student. I love teaching; teaching inspires me to learn more to become a better instructor and always have fresh material.
I’ve done a lot over the years; starred in about 20 Bellydance DVDs, toured with the Bellydance Superstars, wrote the book Bellydancing for Fitness, appeared on TV in several different countries, and taught workshops and performed all over the world.
Where are you from?
I’m a native New Yorker, half-Greek and half-Swiss. I like to tell people that I’m Greek, but without the beard :)
Where do you live?
Huntington Beach (Surf City, if you’re a Beach Boys fan), CA. Just south of LA.
Where do you teach and perform?
I teach locally, perform only for private events and fundraisers, and teach 4-5 workshops per year overseas. My biggest fan base is in South America, so I go there a few times per year.
Your videos are very popular amongst the beginner students and they love your simple down to earth way of teaching. If you would give one piece of advise to the beginner dancers, what would it be?
I tell my beginning students that everyone learns the same moves, but they look unique on everyone because this dance has an internal element that lends itself to being expressive. This promotes creativity, healing and emotional release.
So, the best thing to do is learn from as many teachers as you can, and watch as many dance performances as you can, then take from each one the moves and techniques that resonate with who you are. Thus you build your own style, become your own dancer, and reap the rewards of self-expression.
Have you dreamed to become a performer at a young age?
Yes, since I was very young. I wanted to study piano very badly when I was 5 years old, but was not allowed to study music or dance (strict Greek father). I also wanted to be a ballerina or Opera singer. None of those happened; all three require study from a very young age. I danced alone in my room, and took lessons on my own when I was old enough.
Although I dreamed of becoming a performer, I didn’t think it was possible, so I didn’t pursue it. I had been bellydancing for at least 5 years before I did my first show; and it took me years to become comfortable performing in front of people. I think when your family doesn’t give you support for your dreams and ambitions, it is difficult to believe in yourself. Because of this, I try my best to motivate my students and help them also gain confidence.
How did your carrier as a famous belly dancer get launched?
When I moved to California, I saw an ad for the Bellydancer of the Universe Competition. I went there to meet other dancers and make friends, and I thought wouldn’t win, but I was looking forward to being able to get feedback from the judges. I couldn’t believe I won the Universal Championship. I went back a year later and won the Egyptian Championship. That led to a lot of teaching opportunities.
By then I was teaching and dancing A LOT, like 6-10 shows and 4 classes per week. People asked me if I went to the gym, but all I did was dance.
So I got this idea to do a bellydance fitness tape that could teach the basics while having a good, full-body toning and aerobic workout at the same time. It was low budget and there were a lot of issues with sound and video sync, but a major distributor saw it and hired me to do the Bellydance Fitness for Weight Loss Series.
What is your favorite and most memorable performance?
For a few years in a row, I was getting booked to do a one-person show in Mexico City, which sold out each time. I’ll never forget the first time, dancing 1.5 hours at high altitude doing 6 costume changes over 14 songs and a myriad of styles: Greek, Turkish, Egyptian, Persian, Khaleegy, Sword, Cane, Wings, Candelabra, etc.
The entire 1.5 hours I was the happiest person on earth, concentrating the whole time and relating to the audience. To be able to present that broad range of styles over a longer time than a usual performance was very satisfying. I often feel that just doing a 7 or 10 minute show is just a warm up, and now I realize why: when you dance for a long time or take an intensive week long class you really get to immerse yourself, express yourself, push your limits, and express something from your soul. It brings your dance to another level. That first show in Mexico brought me to another level, and gave me a huge feeling of accomplishment, because I wasn’t sure if I could do it.
How do you describe your belly dance style?
I think it all depends on the music. When I hear Turkish music, I have to dance Turkish, when I hear Persian music, I have to dance Persian, same for Egyptian, etc. I think it’s about expressing whatever I hear in the music.
Regardless of the type of dance I am performing, I try to keep in my mind that I don’t want to be repetitive, that I want to keep it interesting. I keep it tasteful, for all ages, and to show both strength and grace at the same time.
What do you think makes a belly dancer so enjoyable to watch?
Musicality, choreography, passion, showmanship and personality make a dancer enjoyable to watch.
Technique is what is required to get you onstage, all dancers need technique, and any dancer can develop good technique. A good performance requires interpreting the music and reaching the audience on an emotional level, to strike a chord in their heart.
What do you think about the international popularity of these Arabic art form?
Bellydance has grown beyond just Arabic dance. Now we have Tribal, Tribal Fusion, etc. It’s become just Bellydance to some extent, with it’s roots in Arabic dance and culture. Some people choose to be authentic or classical bellydancers, some choose to be modern, some choose to be folkloric, others Tribal, Goth, Punk or whatever they can dream up. It’s become it’s own art form, a way of movement.
You seem to be one of the very few bellydancers I now that introduces the art of bellydance as a fitness and exercise activity. I am a personal trainer and sports nutritionist myself and completely agree with your philosophy. How do you combine fitness and bellydance and most importantly how do you convince others that bellydance is a workout?
I put together moves & combinations that work all the various muscle groups, and target the hips, abs and waist. Since bellydance moves serve as great toning and isolation exercises, I make teaching the basic moves an extended warm-up and toning section. Then we put the moves into combinations and dance continuously for 20 min, for the aerobic component. It seems to work out well.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the art of belly dance?
I have strong views on this subject. There are TOO MANY people out there that take a few classes and run out booking performances, claiming to be professionals or even teachers. Bellydance, like any other dance or art form, takes a few years before moves start to flow smoothly. If you’re not dancing smoothly and showing a high degree of skill, it can look stiff, rough, jerky, and be annoying to watch. People that have never seen a really skilled dancer will think, “Well, they hired her to dance, she must be a professional. I don’t like bellydancing, it looks vulgar”, or “It’s not a real art form, she’s just walking around shaking.”
So, for many people, their whole concept of bellydance is either the amateur they saw at the county fair, or the ridiculous Hollywood sex-stereotyped stripper connotation.
Bellydance, like any other dance form, should show a high enough skill level that your audiences are impressed or even amazed, even if they have never seen a bellydancer before. They should be blown away.
I was very glad to see Kaya and Sadie on national television. We need more trained bellydancers on television to show the world the “WOW” factor.
I wish there was some way to stop amateurs from posing as professionals, but I think the best we can do for now is educate the viewing audience, so that they know the difference.
Let’s now talk about you and dance in general. This might seem like a difficult question but what makes you dance?
When I was a kid, I would come home from school, lock myself in my room, put on the radio and just dance around. I had to do it, and when I was done, I thought to myself, “wow, that was fun!”. I had no formal training, but had to dance.
I think some people are just inclined to express themselves in various ways. Some people through movement, others through music, others through written or spoken word, or painting, etc. I’ve always loved music more than anything, and dancing is like riding a wave of music, or flying and music is the wind.
Is there a difference between your dancing with friends or by yourself and performing?
Yes. When performing onstage, I have to think about using the whole stage, and adding dramatic elements like many consecutive turns and level changes. None of those apply to just casually dancing with friends.
Many readers would wonder: you are such a great performer, what advise would you give other belly dancers on becoming great performers like you?
1.) Make sure that at some point when you are either practicing or performing, you completely lose yourself in the dance. That’s when you really interpret the music, that’s real performance, when it feels like you’re dancing with your eyes closed because all you can see is the music.
2.) Videotape yourself dancing. After watching your performance, compare it to a performance by one of your favorite dancers that inspired you. Ask yourself if your performance was anywhere close to that of your favorite dancer. If not, what elements of your performance do you need to work harder on? Be your own worst critic.
How do you choose a song to dance to?
I keep playing dozens of songs until one of them makes me want to get up. If I find two that make me want to get up, I dance to both, and pick the one that felt better while I was dancing to it.
What are your favorite songs to belly dance to?
OMG I can’t answer that question. Too many beautiful songs over the years, and our tastes constantly change.
Who are your favorite belly dancers?
I have a lot of influences: Zahra Zuhair, Eva Cernik, Amir Thaleb, Saida, Samia Gamal, Farida Fahmy, Ozgen, Amar Gamal, Tito Seif and Sahra Saeeda, to name just a few.
Do you feel that dancer empowers you? if so how?
Yes. The fact that dance is used in many cultures as mysticism is proof that it, at the very least, creates euphoria and release. In our society, we just don’t have enough of that. If you find it in dance, cherish it.
Let’s talk about your family life if you don't mind. Tell us a bit about your family
My parents were immigrants that met in citizenship school in the US. Dad was from Greece, Mom was from Switzerland. My brother and I used to get a lot of laughs at watching our parents adjust to and comprehend American culture. Although we were poor, my parents were loving and tried very hard to make sure we had things that they didn’t. They taught me to enjoy the simple things in life, to treat people as I want to be treated, to be honest and to respect all things. These are the most valuable things anyone could have taught me, so I am very thankful to them. They are both deceased, and I miss them dearly.
What do you enjoy to do in your spare time?
I have a lot of hobbies and interests. I sing, paint, write poetry, meditate, ride motorcycles, do photography, design websites, sell real estate and write business and marketing plans for startup companies. I also like attending dance and music events, visiting friends, and enjoying my pets.
Let’s talk about the future. what's next for Rania?
I want to do online classes next.
You are one of the most beautiful bellydancers I know. How do you keep looking so beautiful?
That is very nice of you to say. I don’t know how to answer that, other than that I eat very well. I avoid processed foods, I don’t drink soda, I try to limit sweets and starches to a few times per week, and take a lot of vitamins and supplements. I try to do Yoga at least once per week, because I feel that it is beneficial for body (internal and external) and mind and spirit.
I have many friends who, if you give them $100, will spend $90 on shoes and make-up, and $10 on food. I would rather spend $90 on organic, unprocessed food, and holod off on buying new shoes until I really need them. I eat a lot of organic vegetables and cheese.
If you have one beauty secret to share, what would it be?
How about three, can I give three beauty secrets?
1.) When you eat, skip the bread and potatoes, and double up on the vegetables. You will feel just as full, but get more nutrients and fiber.
2.) Make sure to get enough sleep, it sets the tone for all systems of the body to function adequately.
3.) We store trauma and stress in our bodies. Figure out where you store these things, and work on those areas, either with Yoga, dance or massage, to help release pent up tension and allow the energy system of your body to flow without these blockages. Beauty isn’t necessarily about features; it has to do with radiance.
What’s your favorite make up?
- Eye shadow: Chanel, Lorac, Mac, Loreal.
- Mascara: Cover Girl, Loreal, Lancome.
- Foundation: Laura Mercier, Cover Girl, Benefit, Mac.
- Blush: Mac, Benefit. Revlon.
- Eyeliner: Christian Dior, Loreal, Stila, Revlon.
- Lipstick: Loreal, Clinique.
- I also started using organic, cruelty free makeup, but haven’t been using it long enough to have recommendations.
Where do you get your belly dance costumes?
For the first 10 years of my dance career, I made all my costumes. I would sew until my fingers were bleeding. Then I started buying them, either from the various festivals with vendors, or I would buy from Dahlal, Audrena and Turquoise International. Lately, I started making my own again. We go through phases.
I learned the hard way that fit is the most important thing when choosing a costume. Early in my career, I would fall in love with an expensive Egyptian costume that was so beautiful, I had to have it, even if it didn’t fit well. I figured I could ‘make it fit’. It just doesn’t work. If you find something that fits perfectly, it will be the one you turn to time and time again to rely on for performances.
Check out Rania's website and complete of dance DVDs on her online store at http://www.raniabellydance.com